NPR’s national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly sat down for a 52-minute interview Thursday with CIA Director John Brennan at CIA headquarters in northern Virginia. Kelly asked about Russian interference in the U.S. election, how the CIA views President-elect Donald Trump and the future of Syria. Brennan also shared some of his plans for his post-CIA life. (Hint: He won’t be writing a spy thriller).
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let me start with Russia. The White House has ordered a review, and I respect that you don’t want to get out ahead of that. I also respect that you cannot get into details of evidence that’s classified. But a yes-or-no question: Do you, as head of the CIA, stand by the October statement that represented the consensus of U.S. intelligence, that Russia tried to interfere with the U.S. election?
CIA DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN: Absolutely. Yes I do.
That same statement also said only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized this interference. And the statement used the word “confident,” that U.S. intelligence is confident in those things, which is a word I know that you all don’t use lightly. You’ve seen the intelligence; those of us in the public have not. But can you say hand over heart that you’ve seen it and it’s solid?
Well, I can say that the statement that was issued by [Homeland Security] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson, as well as DNI [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper, was one that was very carefully considered. Going out publicly with that in early October, the month before the election, we wanted to make sure that there was full confidence in the language in there in terms of the responsibility for those compromises, as well as the intention to interfere with the election. So we stand by it today. We are following through with the president’s request to do a thorough and rigorous and comprehensive review.
The president wants that to make sure that we understand fully what happened, what we need to learn from this experience, as well as to make sure that the incoming administration appreciates the extent of the concern that I think we as a government have, this administration has, about the opportunities for trouble-making in that digital domain. And I think this most recent experience with the Russian activities during this election really underscores the importance of making sure that we as a government take the appropriate steps to protect and safeguard our way of life as well as the tenets of our current democratic process.
You mentioned the importance of making sure that the incoming administration understands the seriousness of what happened. How significant is that to you, and to what extent do you think they don’t get it yet?
Well, it’s critically important to me, both as the current head of the CIA as well as when I was down at the White House, my responsibility was homeland security. And over the last eight years, I think the Obama administration really has tried to take steps to safeguard that environment because this country’s national security, as well as our prosperity, really rests on what we can do to secure that digital domain. And we want to make sure that the next administration, I want to make sure that my successor, and Mike Pompeo has been designated to be President-elect Trump’s nominee, that they are able to take the baton that we have been running with for the past eight years and do everything possible to protect the government’s networks, databases and systems, but also to protect this country’s systems. So I think it is very important, and I think there are some people who are going to be coming into the administration who are unfamiliar with the extent of the threat, the nature of it, how diverse it is, as well as unfamiliar with the intelligence capabilities. And so we have a special responsibility and obligation to make sure that they are as informed, as enlightened, as knowledgeable as possible, because they have the responsibility to protect this country’s future.
The White House has also said they’d like to make as much public as possible. And as you know, just saying “Hey, we’ve seen it, we’re the CIA, trust us” doesn’t cut it in 2016. People want to see the evidence for themselves. How much will you be able to make public of what you know?
I believe that this administration is going to try to inform the American people as much as possible about what happened, what the nature of that threat is and continues to be. There needs to be appropriate consideration given to the protection of information that will allow us to continue to monitor and prevent these types of attacks. So I think it’s always a balance when you need to go out publicly with information, optimize what it is that you’re able to push out publicly, but at the same time, protect that which needs to be protected.
I’ve been told in this particular case, it’s proving even trickier than usual in your line of work — the sourcing issue and how much you can put out there, make public without compromising sensitive sources.
Well, I think this is something that is a challenge for us on a number of fronts when we’re talking about the digital environment and capabilities, that we have to see and prevent and take steps against these types of attacks and exploitations. So there is, you know, there are technical issues. There are a whole host of intelligence capabilities that we need to make sure that are going to continue to thrive in the future. And that’s what I think, I know that Jim Clapper, Jim Comey, myself …
… that’s the FBI director and the director of national intelligence …
Right, and President Obama, they all want to be able to again optimize that which we can share publicly but optimize as well the continued capabilities of intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security to carry out their responsibilities.
You mentioned the FBI director and the director of national intelligence. And NPR confirmed with three sources that after the three of you meeting last week, you sent a memo to your workforce and that the memo read: There is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature and intent of Russian interference in our presidential elections. Is that an accurate quote from your memo?
I certainly believe that, that there is strong consensus.
Was there ever not?
Well, sometimes in the media, there is claims, allegations, speculation about differences of view. Sometimes I think that just feeds concerns about, you know, the strength of that intelligence and …
And in this case it was reports of tension between FBI and CIA …
… and differences of view. And I want to make sure that our workforce is kept as fully informed as possible so that they understand that what we’re doing, we’re doing in close coordination with our partners in the intelligence community. And so I try to keep my workforce informed on a periodic basis. But aside from whatever message I might have sent out to the workforce, there is, I strongly believe, very strong consensus among the key players — but not just the leaders of these organizations, but also the institutions themselves. And that’s why we’re going through this review. We want to make sure that we scrub this data, scrub the information and make sure that the assessment and analysis is as strong and as grounded as it needs to be.
That quote I read you about the memo that you sent mentioned that there is agreement on scope, nature and intent of Russian interference. And intent is the one that’s been controversial recently, the question of motive. How confident are you in the intelligence on that? It seems like proving motive is an infinitely harder thing than proving that somebody did something. The “why” is tough.
I will not disagree with you that the why is tough. And that’s why there needs to be very careful consideration of what it is that we know, what it is that we have insight into and what our analysis needs to be. But even back in early October when Jim Clapper and Jeh Johnson put out this statement, it said “the intent to interfere in the election.” Now, there are different elements that could be addressed in terms of how it wanted to interfere. And so that’s why this review is being done to make sure that there is going to be a thorough look at the nature, scope and intent of what transpired.
What’s been reported is that the CIA has concluded the intent was to interfere with the election with the purpose of swinging at Donald Trump. Is that an accurate characterization?
That’s an accurate characterization of what’s been appearing in the media. Yes.
Is it an accurate characterization of where the CIA is on this?
Well, that’s what the review is going to do. And we will be as forward-leaning as the intelligence and analysis allows us to be, and we will make sure that, again, President Obama and the incoming administration understands what the intelligence community has assessed and determined to have happened during the run-up to this election.
Why not confirm that that’s where the CIA is on this? Why not confirm if you have the evidence that you believe is …
Because I don’t work for NPR, Mary Louise. I work for the president, I work for the administration, and it is my responsibility to give them the best information and judgment possible. I have been keeping the administration, senior administration, the president informed about this for several months. I have had numerous interactions with the Congress on this as well. And those are my principal obligations, and now that there has been this request by the president, or direction, to do this report, and there will be things to release to the public whenever that is done. I will be happy to talk to you about it then.
I don’t know if I would be happy to talk to you about then, but I’m willing to talk to you about it then.
Thank you. We’ll take you up on that. The president, President Obama, in an interview with NPR last week, said, and I’m quoting him, “we will” respond to Russian interference. And I’m curious, I realize that’s a policy issue, I realize you don’t do policy, but you, in an interview recently with the BBC, said the U.S. should not stoop to their level. Meaning should not stoop to Russia’s level, should not respond in kind to Russian interference. Why not?
Well, again, it is a decision that this president and or the next president will take as far as how to respond to what we have seen.
But what are the concerns you have in terms of responding in kind?
Well, this country is based on the democratic principles that our nation was founded upon. And there is a lot of challenges throughout the world to those principles of freedom, liberty, freedom of speech and the will of the people in order to govern as they see fit. And the election process is one of those foundational elements of our democracy. And I individually believe that there are certain things that this government, our country, should not be engaged in because it is inconsistent with those precepts, those tenets of the United States of America. So this was what’s making, you know, this challenging, which is how to safeguard our system, safeguard our digital domain, and make sure that there are decisions that can be taken that will deter, maybe sometimes punish those who violate the law, as well as try to attack our national security and try to undermine the democracy that we are.
So that’s why the intelligence input to President Obama and President-elect Trump is going to be very critically important in terms of making those decisions that are going to be, I think, very consequential in terms of what we might see in the future along these lines.
Help me understand. Connect that line for me. How would retaliating in kind — so, a cyberattack against Russia — how would that undermine American democratic principles?
Well, I think if we hold dear the principles of democracy, liberty, freedom and freedom of speech and the right of people everywhere to have governments of their choosing, preventing the conduct of a free and fair and open election, devoid of interference and foreign manipulation, is something that I think the United States government, as well as the American people, would certainly want to make sure that’s going to be who we are.
And so there are a lot of things that those adversaries, enemies that we have, whether they be terrorists or proliferators or … whomever. Nation-states. They do some things that I think are beyond the pale. That’s why I don’t think we should resort to some of the tactics and techniques that our adversaries employ against us. I think we need to remember what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for our country, our democracy, our way of life, and to engage in the skulduggery that some of our opponents and adversaries engage in, I think, is beneath this country’s greatness.
It’s interesting because you’re speaking to the rules of cyberwarfare. Are there clear rules? It seems as though the U.S. is playing one game and an adversary like Russia is playing by entirely different rules.
Well, that’s a good point, that there are no — well, there are international norms and standards that are adhered to mainly and endorsed by governments. And there are a lot of things that are being done by nation-states or groups or individuals that are inconsistent with those norms and standards. But given that the digital domain does not respect sovereign boundaries and therefore is not subject to legal enforcement by individual governments, it makes it quite challenging.
But I do believe that we can look at ways to protect this country’s future prosperity and security in that digital domain without having to resort to those types of activities that, again, are inconsistent with who we are as a people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have powerful capabilities. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do some things in the digital domain, in the cyber domain. We do have tremendous capability. But I don’t think, and it’s something that if I were to be asked either as a policymaker or as a private citizen — should this country engage in manipulating foreign elections? — I would say absolutely not.
We need to make sure that we are going to lead the way when it comes to allowing countries and people to choose their leaders, free of that foreign interference. And that’s the concerns we have, as we’ve seen, not just the United States but in other countries as well, the hand of foreign actors. And I don’t think it’s a secret that the the Russians have tried to influence the outcome of elections in other countries as well. So this is not just a question of their cyber activity. It’s a question of their using their influence in ways that are inconsistent, I believe, with what should be happening in these countries’ electoral processes.
And you said the U.S. should not be involved in trying to influence the outcome of elections in other countries?
I do not believe we should be involved in trying to influence the outcome of elections in foreign countries.
That’s not something you would have heard everybody who’s occupied your position here at CIA saying over the decades.
Maybe. And I think certainly in the 21st century this is something that the United States …
The U.S. hasn’t tried to interfere and influence the outcome of any election in the 21st century?
To my knowledge, no. That is something that certainly this president and I think even the last president, last administration and administrations before that. Encouraging participation, trying to make sure that people do have the opportunity and the right to vote in elections and that those electoral systems and campaigns are done without that foreign interference, yes, that’s something we encourage.
But as far as trying to influence the outcome and to shape the outcome so that a preferred candidate emerges on top, no, that is something that this administration and, I can say, in previous administrations as well — I’m not going to go back into the far reaches of U.S. history, but I will say that what it is that we are trying to do today, is to make sure that people everywhere are able to experience the fruits of democracy.
You mentioned the incoming administration and the importance of their understanding all of the intelligence that exists and that is out there. President-elect Trump, we are told, has gotten a couple of intelligence briefings this week, but he has declined the tradition, the recent tradition at least, of getting a daily intelligence briefing in the run-up to the inauguration. And he and his incoming national security adviser have been dismissive of, I think safe to say even scornful of, the CIA. Why should President-elect Trump trust the CIA?
Well, I think the the CIA has a rich history of being able to inform, enlighten our leaders, our policymakers. And I do think that a number of people who would be coming into the administration, some have distant history as far as being part of the government. Some never were in the government before. So I believe it’s our solemn obligation as CIA officers to make sure that all of our new administration officials, from President-elect Trump and Vice President Pence on down and national security adviser-designee Mike Flynn, that they understand the breadth and depth of our capabilities.
And I’ve told our people here at CIA: You have a solemn obligation to carry out your statutory responsibilities to inform and enlighten the senior-most members of this government and making sure that the CIA carries out its responsibilities in terms of our responsibilities for clandestine collection, all-source analysis, counterintelligence, covert action, liaison engagements across the range of responsibilities. And we need to make sure that we’re able to educate the people that are coming into the government.
This is the time for CIA officers to shine, and I’ve told them to look upon this as an opportunity. And I have not had any conversations with the president-elect Trump or Mike Flynn about their views on intelligence. And I do believe that they will appreciate the value of that intelligence if they don’t already. And I believe that, with more exposure, they will understand just how important our work is and how much we can help them succeed in terms of what this country needs to do over the next four years at least.
It sounds like you’re saying Donald Trump doesn’t get what the CIA can do yet, but he will.
I think it’s very difficult for anybody outside of the government, outside of those who have knowledge of the intelligence community, to really appreciate what it is that we do and understand. There’s a lot of misperceptions about what the agency does, based on some media reports and movies and other things, that there needs to be a process whereby they can absorb what our capabilities are, the expertise.
We have some of the world’s greatest experts on so many issues, and I cannot be prouder of the people in the agency. And as I’ve told them, you’re going to have the opportunity to really impress a new group of people and really have them better understand the challenges, the threats, the opportunities that are out there. So I don’t look upon the incoming administration as one that is not going to absorb intelligence. I look upon the new administration as one that is going to be thirsty for this inside information, because a lot of it is going to be very new to them. So I think people are energized and are looking forward to the opportunity to talk to a new administration.
Do you have any insight into why they haven’t been thirsty yet for the insights?
I wouldn’t say they’re not thirsty. There are continual briefings and meetings, and having been part of the transition team for then-President-elect Obama, that period of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day is full of things to do in terms of picking senior people and just getting, you know, your organization ready to move from a campaign and a winning ticket to a new administration. So I think there are only a certain number of hours in the day, and I’m not going to presume that I know all of the things that the incoming team were trying to accomplish. But I am confident that over time, there’s going to be a rich appreciation of what it is that the CIA and our intelligence community colleagues bring to our national security.
I’d love to let you respond to two pieces of criticism. One is that the Trump transition team has pushed back hard against some CIA judgments. They released a statement saying, and I’m quoting, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Do they have a point?
They haven’t said anything to me or to CIA directly.
That was a public statement though.
Well, I’m sure that this is part of their perception of what CIA has done in the past.
But the CIA got it wrong on Iraq.
Well, you know, the intelligence community did not call it 100 percent accurate in the run-up to the Iraq War.
So why should they trust you now?
Well, because there are many, many, many, many things that the CIA has in fact done and has called correctly. We don’t have a perfect record. I understand that. And I will, if I have the opportunity to talk to the incoming team, I will talk to them about some of the things that we really are quite proud of and do. But intelligence is both a science and an art, and there are some things that we know with certainty, some things that we infer, some things that we assess, but sometimes the truth can be quite elusive. And yes, there have been times in the past where we fell short. But I can point out numerous occasions when this agency did save lives, kept this country safe, and we as Americans should be quite proud of what legions of agency officers have done over our history.
The other criticism of late has been that the CIA has waded in to politics in a way that it shouldn’t. And I want to let you respond to a quote. This is from Republican Congressman Pete King, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, who says you should be — you, personally, John Brennan — should be investigated for orchestrating a “hit job” on Donald Trump. Do you personally, does the CIA as an agency, are you orchestrating a hit job on Donald Trump? Do you have an ax to grind with the president-elect?
Ah, Peter King. He’s somebody who I’ve had, you know, many engagements over the years. I must say he is a great politician, and he is really quite skilled in these types of political fulminations and has been quite active in many respects. I’ve had run-ins with them over the years and also have had very good conversations with him.
So I think as a very strong partisan, in many respects, I think he is doing what many politicians will do at times like this, which is to try to defend, if not attack, those that he believes are challenging maybe his colleagues and party or whatever but …
You don’t think he means it?
Oh, well, he, I think, again, he is quite skilled in hyperbole as well as these soundbites. And Peter King is somebody who I respect and admire his political skills, but — and he can investigate me, that’s fine. I am very, very confident that the CIA carried out its responsibilities very well. And I am happy to talk to members of Congress who might want to ask me questions about our role.
To his broader point, because he’s not the only person who’s raised it: Does the CIA have it in for Donald Trump?
[laughs] We are apolitical. We are nonpartisan. We serve our policymakers and our presidents irrespective of political party, and we try to carry out our duties to the best of our ability. And so we have it out for no one except this country’s adversaries and enemies. And if you’re an adversary and enemy of this country, you should be afraid of CIA because we will work to thwart your aims. But if you are a member of this government, and if you are a peace-loving American, you should have great pride in what it is that we do. So we certainly do not have it out for any administration or any senior official or the incoming president.
You mentioned Mike Pompeo who, if he’s confirmed, will be your successor as director of the CIA. Has he reached out to you? Have you started briefing him on … ?
I have, I have known Mike Pompeo, Congressman Pompeo from Kansas, because he’s on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the HPSCI, the oversight committee. I have met with him a number of times. I have talked to him …
Since he was nominated?
Oh, yes, absolutely. And in fact I have spoken to him this week a couple of times. I want to make sure that the CIA is doing what we need to do in order to ensure that his process for confirmation goes along smoothly and he is working that. And he is not presuming confirmation, so he is doing the absolute right thing in terms of focusing on that upcoming hearing. But he is somebody who, when I’ve spoken to him, he’s excited, he’s humbled by the opportunity, he recognizes that this is a tremendous organization and he would consider it a great, great honor to have the opportunity to lead the women and men of CIA.
And as long as I’m director of CIA here, I’ll make sure that we continue to run with the baton up until Inauguration Day. And I look forward to being able to hand this baton off to somebody who is as dedicated American as Mike Pompeo is, a former military officer and a serving member of Congress and somebody who is savoring the opportunity to come here to CIA.
Also someone who has expressed very strong political views — appropriate for a congressman, less so for a CIA director. I was struck by statements the two of you both made recently on Iran. You, in an interview, said it would be the height of folly to roll back the nuclear deal. And Mike Pompeo was tweeting the day before he was nominated, saying, calling the nuclear deal “disastrous” and that he looked forward to rolling back. Safe to say you two have a different world view on certain things?
Safe to say that we, if we were in different positions at the time. As an intelligence official, I will speak my mind about what I see as threats to U.S. national security. Mike Pompeo, as a congressman from Kansas and as a politician, I think he serves his constituency as well as his political leanings well. He is outspoken, which is, which is good. But I think he recognizes that, as a politician, he has the absolute right to take political stances on issues, just the way I as an intelligence official have every right to take positions on national security issues, which I do. So the fact that we may not have said the same thing, I think, is a reflection of the different positions that we hold.
Will he need to park those strong world views when he comes in as CIA director and his task is to provide objective intelligence and information to the president, particularly when it may not be the exact intelligence and advice that the president wants to hear?
And I’m sure that Mike will enjoy talking to you as much as I enjoy talking to you about these issues when he comes in.
But I think he certainly recognizes the difference between being a congressman from Kansas and being the director of CIA.
You think he gets that.
Oh, absolutely. He is a West Point graduate. He is a Harvard-trained lawyer, a member of Congress, and he recognizes that if he has the great honor to raise his right hand and swear an oath of allegiance to his country as CIA director, that he has statutory responsibilities that he needs to carry out to the best of his ability, and that is to make sure that the CIA and the director of CIA fulfills their apolitical, nonpartisan role to make sure they carry out the CIA’s mission.
During your time here, you launched some of the most sweeping reforms in the history of the CIA, creating missions where you have spies and analysts working side by side, focused on certain regions and topics. You created a new Directorate for Digital Innovation, to beef up CIA’s technical and cyber capabilities. As you speak to your incoming successor, Mike Pompeo, is your sense that he will leave those changes in place?
Well, I felt a special responsibility since I served 25 years in CIA to do what I could here on the organizational front to make sure that we’re postured well for the future. I’ve talked to Mike about the modernization program we have underway here. He is very familiar with it. I briefed his committee many times. I told him that to me, the modernization process should never end because we have to constantly adapt to the realities that we have to deal with in the outside world. And my recommendation to Mike was to, when he comes here, get to know the place as best he can.
This is a large organization, a complex organization, but a very powerful organization. I’m sure during the course of his tenure, he will look at things just the way I did and say, you know, we need to adjust this or tweak that. I believe, though, that if this agency is going to fulfill its mission to the best of its ability, we need to take full advantage of the great expertise and capabilities and tools and authorities we have. And that mission-center construct is one that integrates it.
I think Mike, as a military officer, I think will see that there are some similarities between what we did and what the military did as far as forming those combatant commands so that you have the benefit of Marines, Air Force, Army, Navy brought together. So I’m confident that this integration model is going to continue in the future. But I’m also pretty confident that there will be subsequent adjustments, as there need to be, as the agency continues to adapt to the evolving nature of the world environment.
Let me turn you to one of the regions of the world that I know has occupied a lot of your time and will presumably occupy Mike Pompeo’s as well, and that’s Syria, which you have described is the most complex situation you have ever had to grapple with …
… and the most heartbreaking, too, for me.
Why the most complex? I think the heartbreaking thing is obvious to all of us.
Complex because there are so many internal actors and external actors involved. There are also a number of competing interests and objectives. There is such a variety of confessional groups, of ethnic groups, of individuals who adhere to different religious faiths. And it’s all brought together in that area, and it’s made also more complex by the fact that you have an authoritarian leader in Bashar Assad, who seems to have no compulsion against using weapons of war to kill, maim and injure countless number of Syrian civilians.
But you also have then the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah and Russia that have brought to bear their capabilities inside of Syria, and you have terrorist organizations like ISIL and also like Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida in Syria, that have taken advantage of a lot of the political vacuums that have occurred as well as just the fighting. So it’s become a cauldron of activity of individuals and groups that have their own individual agendas and objectives.
We are trying to make sure that the Syrian people can emerge from this experience with a political process that’s going to give them the government they deserve, that’s going to truly represent all the various groups inside Syria, while the same time trying to crush and destroy terrorists that are thriving right now and in many parts of the country. So there are competing objectives, and sometimes these objectives are, U.S. objectives, are in direct tension with one another, which really makes this so complicated.
One new twist seems to be what’s being described as perhaps a new constellation of power in the region: Iran, Russia, Turkey. There were three-way talks this week. The U.S. was not invited. How much insight do you have into that axis, or would you even describe it that way?
Well, I think there certainly have been discussions and talks that are going on among them. I think in some areas they have complimentary interests and objectives. I think there are areas also where they disagree. And I think sometimes that the Russians will try to take advantage of tactical opportunities that may exist to forge some agreements and alliances. But I do think that over time, those three countries alone are not going to be able to resolve the problems in that region. But I do see that some of the actors, for a variety of reasons, are seeking to form alliances to see whether or not they can advance their common objectives. But also, I see that there is going to be real conflict among them on some other elements of this problem.
Because the long-term goals don’t align?
Long-term goals as well as, there are — again, some of the players that are inside the country are aligned with some of those states and not with others. And sometimes the proxies that they try to work with will have their own agendas that will, I think, disrupt some of their benefactors’ objectives. So this is a very dynamic situation right now. Things are going to continue to move, and I think over the next several months, we’re going to continue to see, unfortunately, a lot of violence and bloodshed. So I think there will be a number of false starts on solutions. But this cannot be resolved in the battlefield.
This insurgency inside of Syria is not going to go away. Even if the terrorist groups are crushed, there are many Syrians that have had their lives torn asunder by Bashar Assad, and they’re not going to stop until he is out of power. And I think his getting out of power is going to be really the first step toward Syria’s future.
I was going to ask you. It looks as though this week we’re seeing the battle for Aleppo drawing to a close, and I was going to ask: Do you see that as the beginning of the end of conflict in Syria? It sounds like the answer is a firm no.
No, I don’t believe so. What we see is the deliberate attempts to exterminate the opposition forces that were in Aleppo and there were some terrorists that were there. The destruction of Aleppo really has been an awful, awful demonstration of sort of a scorched-earth policy on the part of the regime as well as the Russians, and to many Syrians, men, women and children, have died there. And unfortunately there are many individuals who are now trying to figure out where they go next. They are allowed to leave Aleppo. But as you know, they go up maybe toward Idlib, is that going to be the next phase of what the regime is doing to try to exterminate the opposition?
So, yes, there were some of the members of the terrorist groups that were in Aleppo, but the overwhelming number of opposition there were part of what was the Free Syrian Army. So Aleppo’s destruction, Aleppo’s fall, to me is not a sign that there is going to be an end to this conflict, because I am convinced that many, many of those oppositionists — the ones who are trying to reclaim their country for their families, for their neighbors, for their children — will continue to fight. So this insurgency is not going to go away until there is some type of viable and genuine political process that will bring to power in Damascus a government that is representative of the Syrian people and really will try to repair and recover from this awful war.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The batteries in the recorder died at the end of this answer, so the question was re-asked at the end of the interview. For concision, we have combined the two answers in this transcript.]
One more on Syria. One of the questions put to President Obama at his White House news conference last week was about Syria, and it was specifically whether he felt any personal moral responsibility for what was going on in Aleppo, and he said he did. I want to put the same question to you. The CIA is involved in that conflict in ways that you can acknowledge publicly, and in ways that I know you won’t. But do you feel any personal moral responsibility for, as you said, that the heartbreak that we see happening there?
I certainly feel a connection with Syria, the Syrian people. It’s a country that I traveled to a number of times, and I just see the devastation of the people, of the landscape, of the ancient cities. So I think, you know, we all who are involved, in one form or another, certainly feel that connection. We feel some responsibility.
I think we always like to say that we wish that we would have been able to make a difference in a way that would have prevented the slide and the situation there. So there’s no way you can divorce yourself, emotionally or mentally, from these situations that you play a role in. We also have to recognize, though, that as great a country, as powerful a country as the United States is, we have, in many areas, limited ability to influence the course of events. And you try things and you hope and you plan and you strategize. But there are a lot of factors, a lot of variables, a lot of unforeseen developments as well as actions. And then it comes down to some decisions that need to be made as far as what’s the extent, the nature of U.S. engagement and whether or not certain policy decisions are really in keeping with what our national security demands.
And these are really tough, tough calls. And when I was down the White House and I was a policymaker, a part of that policy circle, these are issues that you really agonized over. And I know that President Obama has agonized over them. And when we meet in the Situation Room, we look at a lot of these challenges and what does the, what can the United States do and what type of commitment we want to make, whether it be on the economic side or on the military side or on the intelligence side. There are a lot of factors that go into that ultimate decision. Opportunity costs, as well as if you take certain steps, what does that mean as far as the follow-on steps and actions that might be required? So these are tough, tough calls.
In the case of the CIA, those steps have involved helping to arm some of the moderate rebels as — as defined by CIA. Has the CIA gotten that balance right? They’ve been armed to the extent that they can continue fighting, not armed enough to win decisively.
The United States government has provided support both political as well as other types of assistance to elements of the opposition. And I will not address what CIA may or may not be doing. I know there’s a lot of things that are out there in the media. But I will say that there are thousands of these fighters, the opposition, who want to reclaim their country and are looking for support from the outside because they recognize that fighting against one of the largest Arab armies, the Syrians, along with Hezbollah, a formidable paramilitary military force, Iran, as well as Russia. And that overwhelming firepower against opposition fighters who are lightly armed and are again trying to protect their families, their villages, their neighborhoods without external supports, they are just overpowered. They’ve done a remarkable job, I think, in terms of trying to prevent Bashar from just overrunning the country.
But if I may, I’ll put the question again: Has the U.S. provided the right amount of support?
I think it’s clear that the opposition has not had the type of capability necessary to push back against the regime and pro-regime forces that have come to bear. And so these opposition forces get their support from a number of quarters. And it’s clear that that type of support was coming from the outside has been insufficient to prevent the fall of Aleppo, to prevent the fall of some other areas. So that’s what the, you know, the opposition has looked for is that external support that they need to go up against these are overwhelming odds.
One other place in the world that I want to ask you about: North Korea. Where does North Korea and its nuclear ambitions rank in the list of things that keep you awake at night?
It is certainly in the top five.
What would be the others, if I may?
[laughs] Well, I have about 20 or 30 other things that are in the top five that compete.
There are a lot of ties there. But North Korea, given that Kim Jong Un has demonstrated, I think, some real irresponsibility and continued march toward having a nuclear weapons program with ballistic missile capability that could not just threaten regional states but also this country. I think this is something that needs to be at the forefront of the security agenda of the next administration. It has certainly been on this administration’s agenda. And so we cannot allow, in my mind, this situation in North Korea to continue its current trajectory, because there is just, I think, real potential for his destabilizing actions in the region that threaten our security interests in that region but also can threaten our homeland as well.
What might change North Korea’s trajectory? It’s described as the land of lousy policy options.
Yes. Well, I think we’ve worked with China, and I think China also recognizes that North Korea is a problem. I think it stands in China’s way of accomplishing a number of Beijing’s objectives in terms of its regional relations as well as relations with the United States. I do think ultimately it’s going to be up to the United States, along with China, South Korea, Japan and others, to have a united front when it comes to North Korea, making sure there’s a united international front in terms of the sanctions and actions that can be taken against North Korea.
Hopefully, the people of North Korea will recognize that Kim Jong Un is just trying to perpetuate his reign and rule at their expense. The impoverishment of the North Korean people is something that is awful. And his continued dumping of resources into military programs when he should be trying to feed his people is really something that I think the entire international community should address and do with tougher sanctions and tougher measures. But China has to be part of that.
The current assessment is that North Korea, if it continues at its current pace, could have a nuclear armed missile capable of hitting the continental U.S. within the next five years. Is that right?
The course that it’s on is a worrisome one because it’s made very clear its intention to continue its nuclear program as well as its continued development of ballistic missile capability of various ranges including intercontinental.
Is that time frame, five years, is that roughly right?
Well, whenever we make these determinations, assessments of that, a lot of factors have to be taken into account. There are issues related to the reliability of certain weapon systems. But I think that if Kim Jong Un has even a small percent chance of being able to deliver a nuclear weapon to other states or this homeland, to me, that’s a greater percent than we should allow to continue.
Last point on North Korea. Dennis Wilder, who used to work for you here at CIA, also has worked on North Korea at the White House, he told me that his biggest concern is that right now North Korea has enough fissile material for about 10 to 20 nuclear weapons but that at their current rate of development, by 2020 they could have enough for 50. The danger being they would have surplus, they would have enough to export. How worrying is that?
We are concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, and we keep the president and Congress fully informed about our assessments about their nuclear capability stockpile, as well as their ballistic missile capabilities and developments. So as I said, the trajectory that North Korea is on is one that I think needs to be disrupted, because they continue to try to acquire greater capability. And there needs to be some way for this situation to be resolved. Not advocating any type of military solution to this. I’ve said I hope that Kim Jong Un, with external pressure, is going to realize that the path he’s on is one that is not going to give North Korea the type of of support and assistance that it needs. It does not have the ability to feed its people. It needs to be able to correct that course, and he sees military capability as being the key to getting that type of recognition and respect and assistance. It’s not. It’s getting him the opprobrium of the international community. And I think that the pressure on North Korea, in terms of sanctions and other types of actions, is only destined to increase in the future.
Is there a Stuxnet for North Korea?
[laughs] Next question.
[laughs] Well, if we got this far into the interview and that’s the first “no comment,” I think we’re doing all right. What’s your plan for the morning of Jan. 21?
That’s the thing you miss?
It’s the thing, you know, I say that sleep is overrated. But these are tough jobs, and I’m looking forward to reintroducing myself to my family, spending time with them, maybe reintroducing myself to American culture and reading some books that don’t have anything to do with intelligence and national security. Or seeing some movies. I understand that there are still movie theaters out there. So there are some things that I haven’t had the opportunity to do, after 36 years or so of being in this profession, one that I absolutely love and cherish. And this is the ultimate capstone of my career. I could never see doing another government job, because no government job can come anywhere close to being director of CIA.
What’s the first book on your nightstand that you’re going to get to?
I don’t know, I’m going to sort of wander through a bookstore and to see what is out there. I do want to do something that is very different than what I have been doing right now, just from an intellectual stimulation standpoint. Maybe write some fiction. I know that you are a very accomplished author of fiction.
I have a couple of ideas and, you know, that I would be able to …
Really? Maybe a spy thriller then.
Not a spy thriller. It’ll be something else. We’ll see.
I will look forward to reading it. Director Brennan, thank you.
Thank you, Mary Louise. And thank you for your interest in national security and these interviews that we’ve conducted over the years. I presume that this will be the last one that I’ll have the opportunity to talk to you as a government official. Thank you.
I thank you for your time. Merry Christmas.
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